Global Policy Forum

U.N. Faulted for Jettisoning Development Agenda


By Thalif Deen

Inter Press Service
July 7, 2005


"Donor governments never have really prioritised development," complains Stirling Scruggs, a former director of information, who also headed the resource mobilisation division at the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA).

A few donors have, but they are relatively few, including the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Norway, he added.

"But the big powers have not," Scruggs told IPS, "because ideology and greed have interfered. There is a stubborn refusal to do something about debt service, and now U.S. religious groups that make up the base of the (Republican) party in power have interfered."

Scruggs said that "development is something industrial governments pay lip service to because non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the United Nations and developing countries make noise." He argued that development must be given the topmost priority because "we will then be joined in a global effort that will address the roots of human rights problems and terrorism, and in time lessen the need and burden of peacekeeping."

At the recently-concluded summit meeting of the 132-member Group of 77 developing nations in Qatar, speaker after speaker criticised Western nations for hijacking the U.N. agenda by placing higher priority on terrorism and the reform of the Security Council over economic development. Iran's first vice-president Mohammad Reza Aref set the tone when he told delegates that "it is problematic and challenging that 'security discourse' has crowded out 'development discourse' on the international agenda."

"This unfortunate trend," he said, "represents an almost total reversal of the premises and promises of the U.N.'s major conferences in the 1990s which helped usher a period of close North-South cooperation on major development issues and priorities in almost all fields."

Beginning with the children's summit in New York in 1990, the United Nations hosted more than a dozen major conferences, mostly on social and economic issues, including the environment (in Rio), human rights (Vienna), population (Cairo), social development (Copenhagen), women's rights (Beijing) and habitat (Istanbul).

"In recent years, however, the international community has witnessed a concerted effort at shifting the dominant discourse from development to that of security. For us in the South, security can only be defined within the overall framework of development," Aref added. Therefore every effort should be made to return the "development discourse" to its rightful position and primacy on the U.N. agenda, he said.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe pointed out that despite the priority given to social and economic issues in the Millennium Declaration adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in the year 2000, development is not at the centre of the activities of the United Nations.

"We expect to see those organs of the United Nations that play a key role in coordinating development issues, such as the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the General Assembly, being accorded the centrality and prominence they deserve in order to enable them to be more effective in fighting poverty, hunger and disease," Mugabe noted.

In a 162-page report titled "What U.N. for the 21st Century: a New North-South Divide", the Geneva-based South Centre says "there is widespread criticism of the ECOSOC as its functions today" because its authority and prestige as a principal organ of the United Nations stands "vastly diminished."

Consisting of 54 member states, ECOSOC coordinates the work of some 14 U.N. specialised agencies, 10 functional commissions and five regional economic commissions. Additionally, it receives reports from nine U.N. funds and programmes, and issues policy recommendations to the U.N. system and to member states. But the South Centre report, released during the South Summit in Qatar last month, says that "there is a general feeling that ECOSOC has failed to discharge its charter responsibility to coordinate the activities of and provide policy guidelines to the organisations of the U.N. system in the economic, social, cultural and human rights fields, and that it has ceased to be an effective forum for deliberation and decision-making on global economic and social issues."

Scruggs said the marginalisation of development issues at the United Nations has had a devastating impact on the world's poorer nations.

"As a consequence, we live in a world where millions are worse off today than they were a generation ago; where AIDS, which could have been stopped in its tracks with massive prevention programmes, has instead become an epidemic; where 42 percent of the world's mothers deliver their children without medical assistance; where half of the world's citizens live in poverty; and where the global environment is slowly being destroyed."

He said that the world has reached a crisis point. "Governments and politicians must prioritise development now." Luckily, he said, there is a plan on the table in the form of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which calls for urgent action on poverty, hunger, education, maternal health, the environment and HIV/AIDS, among others.

"The world, led by donor governments, since they have the power and money to make it work, can either embrace it or they can engage in endless debate once again and relegate development to its accustomed place on the backburner. And then they can do as they are now, and continue to deal with the consequences of their inaction," Scruggs added.

The Washington-based Population Action International says that according to a new U.S. State Department document, "development is at the bottom of a U.S. priority list for its work with the United Nations." The five major U.S. priorities, according to the State Department, are budget, management and administrative reform (of the United Nations); peace building commission; human rights council; the U.N. democracy fund; and comprehensive convention on terrorism.

PAI research shows "that an increased investment in development -- which furthers progress towards goals such as access to education, better nutrition, poverty reduction, and expanded access to reproductive health programmes -- would decrease global security problems and improve the quality of life for all."

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who predicts that the upcoming Millennium Summit in September in New York is going to be "the largest gathering of world leaders ever", is expecting the talkfest to approve a new agenda not only to reform the United Nations but also advance the economic agenda of developing nations.

Suzanne Ehlers, senior associate at Population Action International, told IPS that member states can play a critical role in trying to get development high on the U.N. agenda. But she predicts that the top of the summit agenda will not be development, "plain and simple", so member states and their NGO friends are "trying to build the understanding of development and human rights as key to the larger agenda of security (read: U.N. Security Council), as well as U.N. reform".

Ehlers says a declaration or plan of action, in addition to the outcome document, is unlikely to come out of the Millennium Summit either. She said that even a high-level ECOSOC meeting last week concluded without a declaration. That's "not a good thing, in my opinion. If these folks cannot agree on a declaration about development issues, what sort of signal does that send to the larger summit process, where innumerable other issues are taking centre stage?" she asked.




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